Black Hollywood-Powered 'Osmosis Jones,' An Anomaly That Should’ve Hit
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Film , Opinion

Black Hollywood-Powered 'Osmosis Jones,' An Anomaly That Should’ve Hit

Osmosis Jones, the 2001 Warner Bros. animated buddy-cop comedy, seems to be wrongly disregarded when folks think of film classics. Directed by the Farrelly brothers and starring Chris Rock as a white blood cell cop and cold pill Drix (David Hyde Pierce) in the body of an unhealthy man (Bill Murray), this underrated gem of a film has a lot to say, particularly about the progression of black film at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Osmosis Jones tests its audience with tons of gross-out humor, but if you can stomach it, the film acts as a unique entry in the black film lexicon.

It might seem like Osmosis Jones doesn’t fit in the conversation about black images in film mainly because it's a movie that seems like it doesn't belong in any category. Also, on its surface, it looks like it doesn't have any connective tissue to black film history at all. On paper, Osmosis Jones should be a toss-up: a film about the human body from the perspective of a buddy-cop comedy between a white blood cell and a cold pill? It’s ridiculous. And yet, somehow, the film manages to combine all of its weird elements–including live-action scenes with Murray as the human host Frank–and turn it into a smart, concise, funny and grotesque, and even scary film. Indeed, there's a scene where we’re introduced to the villain virus Thrax (Laurence Fishburne) that showcases a murder of a white blood cell. It's so horrific you’d be surprised it was even allowed to be in what is conventionally thought of as a “children’s movie." The film is rated PG, a rating earned by shocking death sequences and some suggestive sexual humor, such as Osmosis looking at a DNA centerfold.

Osmosis Jones juggles a lot of elements, such as the live-action sequences featuring Murray, which many critics who reviewed the film back in 2001 felt were just too gross. The film also features amazingly fluid 2D animation, which seems to take inspiration from caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, that tied everything together and gave Osmosis Jones the life it needed to captivate audiences. The film's inventive character design, Thrax's in particular, also helped sell the film. If you’re someone who crushes on animated characters, you might even be part of the horde of fans who find Thrax sexy thanks to his sleekness and, of course, Fishburne’s voice. But what drives the film home is the tightness of its narrative. At its heart is the classic story of two people who realize they complement each other like peanut butter and jelly.

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Additionally, at its root, the film draws from its predecessors in Black Hollywood. Osmosis Jones stems from a history of the interracial buddy cop film, particularly the pairing of the (usually) white, straight-laced cop and the black, eccentric, charismatic partner, such as 48 Hrs. with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte (1982) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop II with Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold. 

Two notable exceptions in this category of film are Rush Hour (1998) and Lethal Weapon (1987). Rush Hour and its subsequent sequels with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan change things slightly by having two people of color as the headliners while still keeping the interracial buddy cop tropes intact. Also, the first Lethal Weapon with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson (1987), which kicked off a franchise that spanned across the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, inverts tropes by making Gibson the loose cannon and Glover the by-the-book cop. 

With Osmosis Jones, however, Osmosis, an eager cop who wants to prove himself in the veins fighting crime, is forced to work with Drix, who acts as the straight man. Together, the two draw on that time-tested storytelling device of putting two people who probably would never work together on a mission and showing how they come to like each other in the process.

The films mentioned above are a smaller part of the black entertainment renaissance of the late ‘80s and entire 1990s. Even though Osmosis Jones came out in 2001, it was still riding the wave of the late 20th century interest in black storylines and black talent by featuring not one, but three major stars in leading roles: Rock, Fishburne and Brandy, who played Leah Estrogen, the mayor’s secretary and Osmosis’ girlfriend. Of course, all three of these stars have had long careers that are still fruitful, but around the time Osmosis Jones came out, they were at a zenith in their work.

Rock, for instance, had released his standup special Chris Rock: Bigger & Blacker in 1999. Between 1997 and 2002, he also starred and executive produced HBO’s The Chris Rock Show and the film Down to Earth while producing Pootie Tang. Also, he was an executive producer on D.L. Hughley's sitcom The Hughleys in 1998. In fact, Rock was in four other movies the year Osmosis Jones came out: Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, Down to Earth, Pootie Tang and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

Meanwhile, Fishburne was still in the middle of The Matrix mania, having starred in the first Matrix film in 1999 as the popular sage-like character Morpheus. He was already a big star thanks in part to black film classics like Spike Lee’s 1998 film School Daze, 1991’s Boyz in the Hood, 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and 1995’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello. But The Matrix catapulted him even higher than before. He became as synonymous with Morpheus and went on to star in the Matrix sequels, both of which came out in 2003.

In 2001, Brandy was wrapping up her five-year sitcom Moesha, one of the most popular teenage sitcoms of the mid to late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Before that, she starred in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer in 1998. Just the year before, she had booked the landmark role as Cinderella in The Wonderful World of Disney TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Of course, throughout all of this, she was still excelling in her music career; some of the hits she had out around the time of Osmosis Jones’ release included “Have You Ever?” and “The Boy Is Mine” with Monica (1998) and “What About Us?” (2002).

The star power of Rock, Brandy and Fishburne were Osmosis Jones' selling points, giving you a look at just how powerful black talent had become in the 1990s and early '00s. Indeed, some of the biggest films of the 1990s starred predominantly black casts, including The Bodyguard (1992), Boyz n the Hood (1991), Waiting to Exhale (1995), Independence Day (1996), Set It Off (1996), The Nutty Professor (1996), Soul Food (1997) and Men in Black (1997), just to name a few. The stars of these films, including Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Cuba Gooding Jr., Queen Latifah, Whitney Houston, Vivica A. Fox and Vanessa Williams, brought in huge audiences and set their films on paths toward box office gold. Hollywood was reaping the benefits from the black film renaissance, and that positive trend was probably expected to continue regarding Osmosis Jones' success due to the audiences Rock, Fishburne, and Brandy had amassed over their careers. In short, casting these three actors in the film wasn't just done by chance. It was a conscious effort to try to continue to cash in on what Hollywood saw as a money-making opportunity.

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Osmosis Jones also goes against the grain when it comes to how it utilizes black voices and characters. None of the main voice actors are used as butts of the joke. This is unlike other films that have used black voice acting talent, such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) featuring Samuel E. Wright as Sebastian, the crab, and Disney’s The Lion King (1994), featuring the voice of Whoopi Goldberg. An example much closer to Osmosis Jones is Disney’s 1998 film Mulan, starring Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu. Disney’s not the only animation company to derive unnecessary humor from blackness. Other animated films have used blackness in racialized tones, like Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). The movie features Ken Page as King Gator, another animal who is designed to be a black stereotype, complete with huge lips and a bone in his nose. 

Problematic black images in animation is a subject with a long history. Shadow and Act's Jordan Simon touched on this in his article about white actors donning affected black speech when voicing black characters. In Simon's piece, he addresses white actors as delving into a form of minstrelsy by drawing on stereotypes to inform their characterizations. "Viewers are treated to a white actor's take of what they believe to be how black people speak," he wrote. "Without any knowledge of what these characters think or feel, it can be relatively easy for a white character voicing a black character to use their internalized bias to form the basis for how they sound." However, you could argue there's another form of minstrelsy when black actors are asked to play up black stereotypes for a mainstream audience. In both cases, the characters lose out on nuance and much-needed character development. 

Rock’s voice is used much differently in Osmosis Jones. Of course, it’s a different character and a different, much more adult story. But, even still, Rock is playing Osmosis as he might if this were an entirely live-action film. Yes, Osmosis is a white blood cell, but he is a character informed by Rock's race. In fact, a lot of characters in the film, including Fishburne and Brandy's characters, are. While Osmosis isn't real, Rock plays the role similar to how someone like Eddie Murphy or Will Smith would play cops. Osmosis is clearly coded as black, but because of Rock's performance, there's a level of nuance, empathy and humanity that another voice actor might not provide to the character. There is no over-reliance on funny voice antics; instead, what viewers get is an earnest, rounded portrayal of a cop who’s stuck on a beat, waiting for his chance to get in the action. It just so happens this cop is a white blood cell. Fishburne and Brandy also play their roles mostly straight, with most of the exaggeration coming from Fishburne’s work as Thrax. However, Fishburne’s exaggeration isn’t done for comedic effect; it’s done to heighten the evil nature of his character. Overall, Osmosis Jones is one of the few animated films that doesn’t use the black voice to convey a joke or some stereotype. Instead, the actors are given the space to act.

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However, with the type of star power Osmosis Jones lined up, it’s a shame the film didn’t do as well as it was expecting to at the box office--despite costing $70 million, it only earned $14 million, making it a colossal failure. But its success came after its film run thanks to the Saturday morning cartoon market. Between 2002 and 2004, Kids’ WB aired the TV spinoff Ozzy & Drix, which transplanted Osmosis and Drix from Frank’s adult body into the body of a teenage boy. As one of the many kid viewers watching Ozzy & Drix, I can tell you the show still kept much of the same flair as its film predecessor. It was also a spiritual cousin to another Kids’ WB show based on a film, Men in Black: The Series, which aired between 1997 and 2001.

Since the film was a box office bomb, I don’t know if Hollywood is ready to invest in the Osmosis Jones property, despite the industry chomping at the bit to turn any and everything into a “universe” of films. I especially don’t know if they are willing to remake the first Osmosis Jones or invest in similar properties because of how many critics found the film off-putting. But what Hollywood probably didn’t count on is the industry being back in a black renaissance of filmmaking. There’s a golden opportunity in telling unique, individual stories that speak to a broader collective consciousness thanks to Dear White People, Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Black Panther and others. We’re also getting some remakes of films that Hollywood probably wouldn’t have considered, such as Uptown Saturday Night and White Men Can’t Jump. With black directors and producers at the helm, who knows what films we might see next. Perhaps there will be someone who grew up with Osmosis Jones and wants to give the film the treatment it deserves.

Until that time comes, we can see how Osmosis Jones continues to affect pop culture. One new anime that’s quickly gaining in popularity is Cells at Work!, which uses a similar premise to Osmosis Jones. In Cells at Work! the ragtag team of a white blood cell and a cold pill is replaced by a white blood cell and a red blood cell. Just like Osmosis and Drix, the characters of Cells at Work! do their best to keep their human host free from infection. While Osmosis Jones went the semi-serious buddy-cop route, Cells at Work! keeps things light and fun. But there’s no question that Cells at Work! and Osmosis Jones are having a conversation with each other. The interest in the animated workings of the human body lives on.